By: Matthew Piechalak, University of San Diego Magazine
Date: Tuesday, October 25, 2022
Engineering student completes NASA Tech Transfer Program
Like many aspiring engineers, Honorebel Walker has always been fascinated with the inner workings of tangible objects — especially circuit boards.
“When I was younger, I definitely took things apart,” says Walker, a third-year electrical engineering major and math minor.
This summer, Walker completed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Technology Transfer Program, a highly-selective accelerator program. It “ensures that innovations developed for exploration and discovery are broadly available to the public, maximizing the benefit to the nation,” according to NASA.
“NASA has a patent portfolio that they put out,” explains Walker, the current vice president of the USD chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. “All their inventors come together and decide what technologies they can give to the market and figure out ways entrepreneurs can commercialize them.”
NASA’s Patent Portfolio offers three forms of licensing: research, commercial and start-up. As a participant in the tech transfer program, Walker was able to access the portfolio, which has more than a dozen overarching categories of patents including communications, manufacturing, software, robotics, propulsion and of particular interest to Walker, power generation.
“I think power is everything,” he says. “How can we get the most power?” Walker settled on further exploring a patent related to fiber optic cables. “They take solar energy in and produce light through the cables, but it also has another property none of the other cables have: It actually generates energy that can power consumer electronics,” he explains.
The goal of the project is to scale the technology for a consumer level. His target market is property developers looking toward sustainable building. “A lot of people think this can only be for commercial use, but it can also be used on an everyday level,” Walker says. “The most logical thing to do is figure out how to sell it to property developers.”
Symbiotic Fiber is the company name that Walker and his friend, Chris Redd ’22 (BS/BA), established for the venture. Redd is a USD computer science major and also a participant in the NASA program. Walker says the name Symbiotic Fiber made sense because within the fiber optic cable design, it looks like there is a biomimicry aspect similar to octopus tentacles. He adds that he’d love to see the technology used to power a home.
“It provides lighting for home or commercial use and gives a regenerative energy aspect like powering consumer electronics.”
So how does the technology differ from solar power? While it’s a longer conversation, ultimately it comes down to cost and scale. Solar panels, on average, can cost $30,000, where fiber optic cables can cost as low as $1 each. Additionally, solar panels are used to power a whole system, while fiber optics are currently only highly effective for consumer electronics.
“You can look at solar panels as being our competitor, but at the same time, we’re also niche because we’re looking at a market that wants to save money, wants a clean design and can
be highly efficient for consumer electronics,” he says. “We’re not trying to power a whole system like solar is. This technology as a whole is not there yet. We’re very selective on what we’re
able to power.”
Walker grew up in Oakland and transferred to USD from Menlo College. Long before pursuing his degree, Walker says he naturally employed elements of the Engineering Design Process, a cycle of steps that includes defining the problem, identifying constraints, brainstorming solutions, prototyping the best solution, testing, iteration and, ultimately, communicating your solution.
“Growing up in Oakland, where I wasn’t able to have the most opportunity, I think I was applying the process in my everyday life before even knowing what the concept was,” Walker says. “It was only natural I ended up stepping into engineering, because it’s problem solving. I’ve been problem solving all my life.”
Walker is an alumnus of the Oakland-based nonprofit youth organization, The Hidden Genius Project. He attended for five years, from grade 8 through grade 12. “It’s a nonprofit initiative to help young Black men excel in technology and entrepreneurship,” he says. In 2020, Walker was invited back to the organization to participate in an alumni venture seed fund intended for young entrepreneurs. The founder recognized the excellent work Walker was doing and connected him with the NASA program.
“They saw this and thought it would be a perfect opportunity for me,” he says. “I now have access to NASA technology because I was a part of that accelerator.”
The experience has been important for Walker, who understands that successful entrepreneurship doesn’t happen overnight.
“I’m definitely enjoying it,” says Walker, who’s had a multitude of networking opportunities, including meeting Alphabet Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai. “Having access to a company like NASA, that every child looks at in some capacity, is pretty amazing.” — Matthew Piechalak